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Designer babies vs Catholic teaching

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Robert Kurland - published on 08/05/17

Where does the dicey borderline between therapy and enhancement reside?

On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is “the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities,”[emphasis added] which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, “are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future.Charter for Health Care Workers, Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance.

Designer babies? Yes, that possibility is with us, as I recently learned from the MIT Technology Review, and by a Chinese team, as reported in alate issue of  Protein and Cell.

What does Catholic teaching have to say about the moral course to follow? Should we use new genetic techniques to create super humans? Or should it be reserved for purely therapeutic purposes? Answers are given in the document I quote above, and from works footnoted in that document.

But where does the dicey borderline between therapy and enhancement reside?

Here, for example, are some diseases and conditions that are genetic in origin and could conceivably be eradicated through genetic manipulation: Huntington’s chorea (Woody Guthrie’s disease), hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, susceptibility to breast cancer, to mention just a few.

The question arises, and it sounds convincing on its face: “If God has made science available to us to wipe out these illnesses, shouldn’t we gratefully use it?”

Well, maybe.

Let’s examine the borderline situations. What about diseases that may disable a person, or make him more liable to die at a younger age, conditions which are secondary causes  of disease: obesity (as a precondition for circulatory problems), depression (as a precondition for addiction or suicide)? What about babies with Down syndrome? What do the prescriptions laid out by the Charter tell us here? Would genetic manipulation to avoid such problems be treatment or enhancement? If one reads the document in full, it is not quite clear where the borderline is, because the question is so large and invites so much subjective reasoning.

At the other end of the spectrum, the situation is clear: genetic manipulation to get 180-IQ, 7-ft-tall basketball players is not to be done (if it be possible). Pope St. John Paul II made this evident in his address to the World Medical Association, as quoted in the encyclical Donum Vitae:

“Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man consequently amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man ‘corpore et anima unus’ [body and soul one thing] … It is on the basis of this anthropological vision that one is to find the fundamental criteria for decision-making in the case of procedures which are not strictly therapeutic, as, for example, those aimed at the improvement of the human biological condition.” 

This says it all: that which preserves the dignity and uniqueness of the human being as God has intended, is that which is to be allowed. Enabling a designed class of superhumans will not bring happiness to the world, as Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World demonstrates.

And the final question: Is there a slippery slope in genetic engineering on which we can’t control our descent? If we can replace the gene that causes Huntington’s chorea, will we then be content to say “enough” and not try to engineer the superman or superwoman?

The truth is while we know many things, we do not know the mind of God and can only wonder and propose, but the wondering brings more questions and troubling ones, like: “Had science been able to correct the cleft palate and spinal defects of Blessed Hermann Contractus (the author of the prayer Salve Regina), would he have composed the prayer?”

And that begs: “Would the end of suffering mean the end of both art and faith?”

And, miserably, “If science can help us identify genetic illnesses in utero, shouldn’t we test all the babies and prevent the ones at risk from being born?”

And, “If we can identify genetic markers in parents, shouldn’t we do all we can to either fix them or prevent them from having genetically inferior children?”

These are bad questions born of broken reasoning. And they are the questions that will be seriously asked and seriously considered — with as much subjective reasoning as we can manage — because we are a broken humanity.

Perhaps the answer is to find a gene for holiness. As C.S. Lewis put it, the next evolutionary advance will not be in physical or mental improvement, but to be sons of God:

I should expect the next stage in Evolution not to be a stage in Evolution at all: I should expect that Evolution itself as a method of producing change will be superseded. And finally, I should not be surprised if, when the thing happened, very few people notice it … It is a change that goes off in a totally different direction — a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God … [t]he first instance appeared in Palestine two thousand years ago. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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